The term "fascism" characterizes a political and economic ideology based on extreme, often militant, nationalism and rigid control of the state and society. In fascism the importance of the state is emphasized over individual rights. Fascist movements also frequently involve intense racism and elaborate propaganda. In economic terms, fascism can be understood to mean highly restrictive and prescriptive government control (but not ownership) of business enterprises and a distrust of foreign trade and foreign investment. It may also imply a wish for economic self-sufficiency (or autarky). Fascism is sometimes confused with communism because in practice the two have involved totalitarian states, but in fascism totalitarianism is the end, rather than the means, as in communist countries. In its historical context fascism was considered an alternative to both communism and capitalism.
Fascism is a 20th century phenomenon, but it is deeply rooted in European history of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Certainly throughout history, many elements that make up fascism have been evident, such as the use of force to achieve political ends; suppression of dissent and minorities; and the subordination of the individual to the state. However, until the late 18th century, there was no modern sense of nationalism. The French Revolution (1789-1793) and its aftermath are cited by many as marking the birth of modern nationalism. Though ostensibly based on noble and humane principles, the Revolution had to separate loyalty to the throne from loyalty to the state in order to rally popular support. Leaders of the Revolution also had to articulate a comprehensive body of laws, some quite repressive, in order to exercise power once they had seized it. A secular movement, the French Revolution provided a blueprint for how one group's moral and social views could be codified and thrust upon a nation.
Just as nationalism spread throughout Europe over the course of the 19th century, the second element required for fascism began to develop: the technology for mass control. Three technologies were crucial. First, a totalitarian government would need an ample supply of effective weapons so that it could enforce its will. By the late 19th century, weapons manufacturing was sophisticated enough to easily satisfy this basic requirement. Second, a government would require a transportation system. Again, by the latter decades of the 19th century railroad transportation was increasingly available in many European countries, and by the century's final decade the prospect of motor vehicles was well under development. And third, a totalitarian regime would need a fast and reliable means of communication both within its own departments and with the broader society. During the 19th century newspapers had evolved to attract a mass audience, but more importantly, by the early 20th century telephones and radio had been introduced.
The most infamous example of fascism was in Nazi Germany. Italy, however, was the first country to succumb to a fascist government, which rose out of the political and economic chaos in the aftermath of World War I. In Germany, the Nazis came to power in 1933, at the height of the Depression. The fascists in both Italy and Germany accomplished what the previous liberal, parliamentary governments in both countries had seemed incapable of doing: they restored order, brought back prosperity to the businessmen whose businesses had failed, and gave full employment to previously unemployed workers. Some argue that countries like Italy, Germany, and Japan were particularly susceptible to fascism because democratic traditions there were weak. According to that interpretation, the satisfied businessmen and workers ignored the price they paid for a return to order and prosperity: government control of the economy, the subordination of the individual to the state, and the government's suppression of political and civil liberties.
The Nazi example also illustrates that fascism is more than a dictatorship or a repressive military government. A significant facet of the Nazi movement was its cultural program, which attempted to sustain nationalism and racism by promoting the art, music, and literature of "great" Germans. To this body of nationalist works the Nazis added their share of propaganda for dissemination via radio and cinema.
Some observers of world affairs believe it is possible that fascist states will appear again. In recent history, some would characterize Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini as a fascist state, but the label doesn't fit in the classical sense. With its perennial economic and political turmoil in the post-Soviet era, Russia is sometimes cited as a potential candidate for fascist rule. Even within western Europe and the United States there remain neo-fascist groups on the fringe.
Eatwell, Roger. Fascism: A History. New York: Viking, 1996.
Laqueur, Walter. Fascism: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Mosse, George L. The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism. New York: Howard Fertig Inc., 1999.